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Monday, October 15, 2001


Thessaloniki’s Hidden Passion: PAOKomania

Thessaloniki’s love affair with PAOK is kept under wraps. You will rarely find any mention of it in the celebrations of the city’s carefully tailored image as a repository of rich layers of Byzantine, Ottoman, and Jewish history and culture, or as a vibrant, modern Greek and Balkan metropolis ready for the challenges of globalization. Why bother with sports when the contemporary city can boast of its annual international trade fair and film festival, its intellectual life, its markets and museums, and its excellent cuisine and thriving nightlife?

But the city’s passions are close to the surface, and they burst out in the open on any Saturday evening when PAOK plays basketball, and even more so on a Sunday afternoon when PAOK’s soccer team takes the field. Teenagers hang precariously on mopeds zigzagging through traffic, their black and white scarves fluttering. Cars with black and white banners billowing outside their windows honk as they pass through the center of the city on their way to the game.

A Cult By Any Other Name
As PAOK marks its 75th anniversary, its fans can reflect on a history that, beyond any athletic achievement, has seen the team become somewhat of an unofficial religion in Thessaloniki. Not in any spiritual sense, but as defined by Emile Durkheim, namely, a set of symbols with which society worships itself and expresses its collective identity. PAOK went from being the sports club of the Asia Minor refugees to becoming Makedonia’s, and the whole of northern Greece’s, team. And although PAOK’s totemic stature faltered not long ago under the weight of hooliganism, recent good times suggest that the northern Greek cult of PAOK is alive and well.

PAOK was a relative latecomer to Thessaloniki. The oldest big soccer team was Iraklis, formed in 1908 by athletically minded members of a music club. At a time when Thessaloniki was part of the Ottoman empire, these individuals chose to emphasize their Greekness by adopting blue and white colors. When another group of sports fans decided to establish a rival club, they had to choose the only name that could match up against Hercules. Consequently, they called their club – what else? – but Aris, after the god of war. The timing of their move (1914), and their choice of the gold and black colors of the Byzantine empire, suggest that this was probably a group of middle-class Thessaloniki Venizelists.

And then came PAOK. There was nothing genteel and bourgeois about the founding of this club: It was a child of the Asia Minor Disaster. Members of the Pera Club of Constantinople who had moved to Greece after 1922 established it. The club’s full name is the “Panthessalonikian Athletic Club of Constantinopolitans,” and its emblem is a Byzantine double-headed eagle. PAOK chose black and white as its colors because Aris and AEK Athens (also a refugee club) had already adopted gold and black. Last month, which marked the club’s 75th anniversary, a PAOK delegation visited Istanbul to contact one of its founders and to collect data relating to the club’s Constantinopolitan origins.

A Club of Our Own
PAOK immediately became the club that the thousands of Asia Minor refugees in northern Greece considered their own. Pontian refugees established the Apollon club in the Kalamaria area of Thessaloniki, but no other club competed for the loyalties of all those from Constantinople and Asia Minor. In terms of numbers, PAOK quickly became the most popular club. A glance at refugee figures tells us why: According to the 1928 Greek census, refugees constituted 48 percent of Thessaloniki’s population, and the percentage throughout Makedonia was almost as high.

Refugee identity retained its salience until the outbreak of the Second World War thanks to native enmity generated by the competition for scarce resources in what was a poor country struggling to absorb thousands of destitute newcomers. Prosfigia (“refugeeness”) was not a lightly worn label in the 1920s and 1930s. There was intense conflict with indigenous Greeks, and the epithets the latter used against the refugees included “tourkosporoi” (of Turkish seed) and “yaourtovaftismenoi” (baptized in yogurt, a reference to an important ingredient of Asia Minor cuisine.) The conflict was preserved by the emergence of separate, ghetto-like refugee neighborhoods ringed around Thessaloniki’s center.

The refugees responded to nativist exclusion and prejudice by asserting their identity. They generated their own left-wing and Venizelist political culture, their own rebetika, their own cuisine, their own associations, and, of course, PAOK.

Aris, the strongest “native” club, inevitably became PAOK’s great cross-city rival. To this day, PAOK supporters call their Aris counterparts, “skoulikia” (worms), and the Arians respond by calling PAOK’s supporters, “gyftoi” (Gypsies). Both these epithets eerily recall the conflict between indigenous Greeks and the uprooted refugees.

Them and Us
After the Second World War, refugee identity abated, but PAOKomania did not; indeed, it increased. Second-generation refugees in northern Greece remained loyal to the team, but there was much more than nostalgia or family tradition that fostered support for PAOK. The “double-headed eagle” became a symbol of northern Greece’s struggle against the self-absorbed and distant Greek state that willfully ignored the provinces as Athens expanded demographically and economically. Athens’s arrogance was exemplified by its control of the new semi-professional national soccer championship that began in 1960. It would take fifteen years to break the monopoly of the Athens-Piraeus Big Three – Panathinaikos, Olympiakos, and AEK – which managed to share the spoils between them.

It was not only allegedly curious refereeing decisions and back-stage machinations designed to undermine the double-headed eagle of the North that angered PAOK’s fans. Olympiakos Piraeus tried to “steal” PAOK’s greatest soccer star, the legendary Giorgos Koudas, during the 1960s. Civil war was averted, but from that time on, Olympiakos, even more than Aris, became the team that PAOK fans love to hate. An Olympiakos-versus-PAOK match is a small-scale war that stretches the police’s crowd-control capacities.

During the 1970s, nothing could stop a superb PAOK soccer team led by Koudas. In 1976, PAOK became the first team other than the southern Big Three to win the national league championship. That decade also saw the black-and-white Thessaloniki team win the other major tournament, the Greek Cup, twice and also reach the final game another four times, only to lose each time.

The successful 1970s transformed PAOK into Makedonia’s and northern Greece’s team. These against-all-odds successes became a metaphor for the resoluteness of northerners, as the black double-headed eagle symbolized a new collective identity. The change was evident in the lyrics PAOK supporters sung in their stadium. The first PAOK song began with the words, “We are the children of the City (Constantinople).” In contrast, a song celebrating PAOK’s victory in the Greek soccer cup tournament in 1972 (the club’s first national trophy) began with the verse, “Makedonia and Thessaloniki are feasting/because PAOK offered them/the greatest victory.” There was no mention of refugee roots, just as there was not in a song marking another championship in 1985.

Ups and Downs
In the 1980s, soccer turned fully professional in Greece and basketball soon followed suit – PAOK had fan support but needed more money for paying players, as well as signing new ones who would help the team compete. At that point, the fortunes of the basketball and soccer teams diverged, not only off the field but also on it. PAOK managed to score a number of achievements on the basketball court, winning a series of Greek titles and two major European tournaments. The presence of current Phoenix Suns coach Scott Skiles and Sacramento Kings star Peja Stojakovic on PAOK in the 1990s are proof of the high quality of its basketball program.

As for the soccer team, it was doing well domestically and had some good performances in European tournaments, although it could not regain the heights it had scaled back in the 1970s, winning only one championship in the mid-1980s. Then it played against Paris Germain of France in the fall of 1992 in a European tournament. PAOK had already lost in Paris and soon fell two goals behind. PAOK fans did not limit themselves to the usual (illegal) smoke-bombs and flares – they ran riot. The game was interrupted and the European soccer authorities punished the team.

PAOK’s inability to control its fans was partially due to lack of funds. The club was in an odd situation: it was as popular as the Big Three and could rely on the support of thousands of dedicated and vociferous fans, hot-headed fanatics who frequently crossed the boundary into outright hooliganism, a plague on Greek soccer from the late 1970s onward. But the southern clubs such as Panathinaikos and Olympiakos marshaled enough resources to coopt their unruly fans through free tickets, free transport for road games, and other perks. PAOK never had the money for these kinds of giveaways, so instead had to face heavy fines thanks to its fans. The result was that a financially weakened PAOK hit its nadir in the mid-1990s, finishing fourteenth in the Greek soccer league, its lowest ranking ever.

Glory Days Return
Yet there was life after near-death. With a new president and a serious cash infusion, PAOK was up and running again. The soccer team emulated the successes of the financially independent basketball team. In September 1997, PAOK eliminated the mighty Arsenal from the UEFA Cup, a major European soccer tournament. The team from Thessaloniki defeated one of England’s strongest teams, 1-0, at home and then managed an astonishing 1-1 tie playing on Arsenal’s usually impregnable home field in north London.

After the triumph over Arsenal, things began looking up again for northern Greece’s most popular team. It all came together in May 2001 when, to the delight of their ecstatic and well-behaved fans, PAOK defeated arch-rival Olympiakos in the final game of the Greek soccer cup. The win, with an impressive 4-2 score, ended a sixteen-year trophy drought for the black-and-whites. Coach Dusan Bajevic dedicated the victory to the people of Thessaloniki and the whole of Makedonia. If PAOK can stay financially healthy, maintain control of its fans, and – most important of all – keep on winning, surely its status as the city’s unofficial religious cult may even finally gain public recognition.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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